At times, public officials can have short attention spans. They will act with vigor in reaction to a major event, but once publicity subsides and attention is drawn elsewhere, their commitment often wanes. That seems to be the case with a 6-year-old promise to ensure that safety conditions in Utah's coal mines are up to snuff.
After the Crandall Canyon mine accident in 2007 that left nine men dead, the state created the Utah Mine Safety Commission, to ensure that future accidents may be prevented. But a recent analysis by The Deseret News shows the commission's efforts have faded into the category of all talk and no action. The Commission has been disbanded, and its recommendations to bolster mine safety are left undone.
You might argue it's a matter of politics. Coal country is the province of Democrats while Capitol Hill is the territory of Republicans. The communities that depend on coal mining are not a constituency with clout. But all of that notwithstanding, promises were made, and the people of Carbon and Emery counties are justified in asking why they haven't been kept.
There, the safety issue is again top of mind after a miner died earlier this year during a so-called "retreat mining" operation. It is a process that critics say deserves to be re-examined by regulators for its use in the kinds of mines common in Utah. The defunct commission urged just such a re-examination years ago, but the governor and Legislature ignored that counsel, saying tight budgets have left them with no room to act in a significant way.
To the mining community, it was a disappointment, but not a surprise. The Deseret News special report pointed out that in recent decades, Utah has chosen to exert woefully little authority over mining operations. In 1988, the state chose a path of deregulation and allowed the federal government to have sole responsibility for mine safety in Utah.
At issue in the recent death is the specific manner in which retreat mining is performed. Some experts say processes required by federal regulators are the result of computer programs developed with studies largely involving the behavior of coal seams like those found in the Appalachians, not in the Western U.S. Based on the nature of the Crandall Canyon accident, and the subsequent fatality last March, they may have a point.
The 2007 safety commission did recommend a thorough analysis of the retreat mining protocol to see if it may indeed overlook the peculiarities of Utah coal deposits. Alas, that examination has not happened, and it probably won't.
Residents of Utah's "Coal Country" complain that no one in the state capitol seems to care when a miner dies. Their assessment is harsh and untrue, but not indefensible given the state's history of inaction. The Crandall Canyon accident was a catastrophe. Nine men died. Six bodies remain buried in the mine. In the months following there was a surge of public support to take actions to better protect miners while underground.
The lone death last March of 29-year-old Elam Jones has led to new calls for the state to step into the issue. If probably won't, but it should.
And even if it did, given the lessons of Crandall Canyon, it's not likely much would come of it.
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